On School Shootings:
America’s Heartfelt Reaction and the Search for Solutions
On February 14, 2018, fifteen students and two school staff members at a high school in Parkland, Florida were killed in a mass shooting. Saddened by the loss of fifteen youth whose lives were cut short, Americans were also justifiably angered and frustrated by the increase in frequency of such attacks. In the weeks following the attack, massive student-led protests called for new gun control legislation in response. The movement’s common mantra, “never again,” focused on stricter gun controls to prevent a recurrence of such a horrible event. Student spokespersons suggested that any legislator who didn’t meet their demands for stricter gun control would be replaced in the next elections. Some among the protesters quickly latched onto a scapegoat and carried signs that read, “Kill the NRA!” Media provided extensive coverage and support for the movement.
But will this movement produce the correct answer to the prevention of school shootings?
1. Risk Assessment
Attempts to solve social problems through legislation often result in the redirection of governmental resources from one activity to another, thereby creating winners and losers. In many cases legislation can impose limitations on certain freedoms or even restrict civil liberties. So a good starting point is evaluating the magnitude of the problem in comparison to other societal concerns. How do school shooting fatalities compare to other tragic and unexpected loss of life?
Over the past six years, 138 people have died as a result of school shootings, or an average of 23 deaths per year. (This is a significant increase over the prior 32 years in which 297 people were killed, or an average of 9.2 per year.) To those affected, the loss is incalculable. But how significant is the absolute threat to American safety? Consider the following approximate annual fatalities – all incalculable to those affected.
Lightning strike 27 deaths
Bicycle crashes 1,000 deaths (and 467,000 injuries requiring medical attention)
Drowning 3,800 deaths
Distracted driving 3,500 deaths
Drug-related crashes 5,900 deaths
Alcohol-related auto 12,300 deaths
Drug overdose 64,000 deaths
Or consider this: in 2015 the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research estimated that in the prior 20 years, about 12 high school football players died each year from injuries ranging from broken necks, to cardiac failure, to heat-related causes. That’s half as many as killed in school shootings.
The point is not to downplay any cause of preventable deaths, but to raise the question of when to take legislative action, and to what extent.
2. Unfamiliarity breeds fear. Knowledge builds understanding.
Generally, those who most fear the impact of guns in American Society are those who know the least about firearms. That should not come as a surprise. Unfamiliarity of any subject is a prime ingredient to fear and mistrust. When a new ethnic population rises in America, be that Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, or Hmong immigrants seeking refuge from reprisals in Southeast Asia, or Hispanic immigrants seeking a better life, the unfamiliarity creates fear and mistrust from those already here. When geo-political disagreements arise, as with Russia’s attempts to regain global significance, we quickly demonize an entire nation of people with whom we are virtually identical. At the outbreak of World War II, public fear of unknown motives quickly led to the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent. With every new invention, from steam power, to electricity, to artificial intelligence, those unfamiliar with the technology fear catastrophic consequences. Fear of snakes, fear of the dark, fear of going in the water, fear of flying, are all alleviated to some extent through familiarization therapies.
Most of those today who want to see guns banned or restricted have never invested the time to learn about them, to understand their contribution to a free society, and to develop some basic proficiency in their use and handling. Dealing effectively with problems in any aspect of life, requires knowledge and experience in the subject. Making informed decisions on the constitution’s 2nd amendment requires some knowledge and experience.
3. To solve a problem, it must first be properly identified. Only then will root cause analysis lead to the right solutions.
There are enormous pressures to exploit the Parkland school shooting to advance a political agenda – that of gun control. Thus many frame the problem as “gun violence” which automatically presumes a solution. Unfortunately, that solution is unlikely to end mass casualties in schools, because it misses the real problem. For most of America’s history, guns have been found in and around schools, sometimes even as part of the curriculum or extracurricular activities. Why has the incidence of mass school shootings only begun to accelerate in the past few decades?
At the core of every school shooting, or every act of workplace violence, or every act of domestic violence, are people who are so distraught that they want to lash out and hurt others. Shouldn’t the problem definition center on knowing and correcting what drives an individual to such a state that they want to kill others? If we start with that position as the core of the problem, we can analyze downstream actions. Who does the person want to hurt? Is it family members, co-workers, school mates? Is it people with certain beliefs or values, certain ethnic groups, or random Society? How, where, and when is the hurt to occur? Is it planned – requiring forethought and preparation, or is it spontaneous reaction to some stimuli? What is the tool of choice (gun, explosive, knife, vehicle, etc.)? What is the means of execution? Looking upstream, we can investigate what caused the distress, why the individual chose to respond with violence, and what kinds of interventions would have resolved the distress. This kind of thorough examination will allow us to identify: (1) upstream strategies to prevent destablizing distress in the first place, (2) downstream strategies to defend against the possible violent options, (3) cost-benefit analysis of preventive and defensive measures, and (4) potential unintended consequences of various measures.
We have been trained from young on to think in a linear fashion, i.e. cause-effect. But every outcome in life is influenced by a complex array of systemic factors. We are easily frustrated by such complexity and instead seek out black-and-white, quick and easy answers to our problems. Finding a scapegoat, then pinning the blame on one person or thing, is a much more palatable way to respond to a problem. Besides, blame deflects our personal contribution to, and responsibility for, the problem. However, blame rarely, if ever, solves a real problem. Blaming guns for school shooting is easy. It’s simple. And it absolves us from facing the many ways in which we each contribute to the problem.
4. Labeling gun control as “common” sense is actually “non” sense.
The phrase “common sense” is a highly poll-tested term effective at building support for ones views. Why do you think it’s so often used by politicians? But slapping that label on ones viewpoint doesn’t make the view prudent or beneficial.
Given the complexity of the problem as outlined in Section 3 above, specific changes to gun laws might ultimately be identified as reasonable measures to affect downstream defensive strategies. But those would need to come after the analysis, and be carefully crafted and targeted to achieve a well-defined purpose. Broad, proposed reactionary measures like banning a certain model of rifle, or limiting magazine capacity have no bearing on preventing the incidence or magnitude of future school shootings. What they do accomplish is the imposition of one ideology on a whole segment of the population that has little or no impact on the problem. That kind of rash and irrational action creates intense polarization within Society, and reduces the ability of people with differing views to work collaboratively towards good solutions. In extreme situations, government restriction of individual liberties historically leads to police states, oppression, insurrection, and eventual anarchy. Founders of our nation understood that very clearly. And world history is replete with lessons from other failed nations. There are typically plenty of positive, collaborative steps that can be taken to solve any problem without resorting to divisive actions.
5. How do we solve the real problem of violence?
The kinds of problems that lead to school shootings cannot be solved if driven by national political agendas, or media sensationalism. They must begin with sincere people coming together at a grass roots level to begin understanding the upstream and downstream factors in a properly-defined problem. Real solutions will require the willingness to eschew the blame game and simplistic thinking, and delve instead into the complex, systemic factors that coalesce into such tragic outcomes. Real solutions will also require the willingness to gaze into the mirror to see and acknowledge the ways in which we as individuals contribute to the problem. Finally we must place accountability not on a scapegoat, but on the individual actions of everyone and every factor driving the systemic outcome.
What might that look like?
· Teens must understand how their actions contribute to the violence of others, and must correct their inciting behaviors.
· Families must understand the importance of building open communication among themselves, and learn effective techniques to do so.
· Teachers must strive to recognize distress in their students, employ best interpersonal practices in their classroom, and refer concerns to the proper resources.
· Districts must provide (or arrange for) timely access to needed counseling resources.
· Districts must assess the security of their school buildings and take steps to minimize easy threat access.
· Laws regulating the legal sale and ownership of firearms must be stringently enforced.
· Inter-agency law enforcement must work collaboratively to investigate and resolve all threat referrals.
· On site security personnel must be properly trained and committed to engage active threats
· Media must recognize their role in creating overblown fear among the public, and promoting copy-cat behaviors in troubled individuals. Management must temper their network’s ratings-based sensationalism and politically-biased coverage.
· Everyone must improve their tolerance toward, and compassion for, those whose views differ.